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Iban pregnancy taboos as recorded by Rev William Howell

Born on Sept 15, 1856, Reverend William Howell was a Eurasian born to a Welsh engineer named Frederick Howell and a Malay woman.

He was raised in Kuching before he left for England to study at St Augustine’s College in Canterbury.

When he returned to Sarawak in 1878, he spent most of his life preaching in the Batang Lupar area.

While doing his missionary work, Rev Howell contributed many articles on Iban folklore, culture and language.

On March 16, 1910, he published an article in The Sarawak Gazette highlighting the pregnancy taboos practiced by Iban women in the olden days.

Apart from what have listed below, there were plenty other pregnancy taboos according to Howell “of a minor character which are not worth mentioning”.

Here is a list of Iban pregnancy taboos as recorded by Rev William Howell:

1.It is forbidden for husband and wife to cut off creepers that hang over the water or the road, or else the mother would suffer from hemorrhage after delivery.

2.It is forbidden to dam a stream, to plait rattan, to make a bubu (fish trap) and to drive a nail into a board, or else the woman would have difficulty in the delivery.

3.It is forbidden to pour out oil, or else the child would suffer from inflammation of the ears.

4.The husband and wife are forbidden from fixing the hilt of the parang for fear the child will be born deaf.

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5.The expecting parents are not allowed to break an egg or else the child would be blind.

6.They are not allowed to plant banana plants or else the child would be blind.

7.The husband and wife are forbidden to burn the wood of the ficus to warm themselves or else the child would be dumb.

8.They are are forbidden to kill any animals or else the child would be deformed or have a nose bleed.

9.To scrape smooth the shell of a coconut is forbidden, or else the child’s hair would not grow.

10. Not to bring a freshwater turtle into the room, if not the child would not be born.

11.Never dye anything black, or the child will be black.

12.If the woman were to go anywhere, she must return by the same way so that her child should not know how it is to be delivered.

13.The expectant mother is forbidden to eat anything in a mosquito net or else the child will be a stillborn.

14.The expectant mother is not allowed to carry any stones or the child will be paralysed.

15.Speaking of stones, the pregnant mother is not allowed to cast stones into the water, or else the child will not be delivered and the mother will die.

16.Do not bend any piece of wood into a circle or else the child will not prosper.

Animal sacrifices to ensure smooth pregnancies

Overall, the whole period of an Iban woman’s pregnancy was filled with anxiety and fear that the bad spirits (antu) might assault her and her innocent baby.

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For instance, a bad dream or a small accident such as a fall was considered a sign of incoming danger during her delivery. Hence, a fowl had to be sacrificed to appease the spirit.

Back then, it was common to hear women talking about how many fowls had been killed during her pregnancy.

Do you know any other olden Iban pregnancy taboos? Let us know in the comment box.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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